Dangerous Word Associations

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Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associated to some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.

And that’s only the colours and their meanings. 

Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by). 

Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:

  • She floated about, giddy with shock.
  • The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
  • Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream. 

Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain).

Words that are not obviously positive or negative, or immediately linked with a particular emotion are more easily bent either way: 

Two glasses of wine and her stilettos became as unwieldy as stilts. (Negative)

Walking in stilettos is as exhilarating as walking on stilts: all eyes are on me. (Positive)

Between the obvious associations and the crafting of the non-obvious ones lies a wilderness of exceptions, bizarre connections, and yet-to-be-discovered metaphors.

And that’s only the words and their meanings.

The next stage is associations brought on by multiple words. Let me give you two objects:

A knife and a loaf of bread.

The mind connects the two with the obvious notion of slicing. Now I give you two other objects, of which the first is the same. 

A knife and a baby.

The mind goes haywire. It still returns the obvious notion of slicing or stabbing, particularly if you’ve just seen the knife-bread sentence, but the reaction is the slap of a visceral No!

It’s an extreme example, but it effectively exhibits the mechanics: two objects that are unconnected by a verb or an action can elicit the most violent reactions. In fact, the simpler the objects and the less qualified they are, the more unnerving the result can be. For contrast, consider:

An eighteenth century damascened scimitar that belonged to a Mughal emperor and a baby dressed in cotton pyjamas.

It’s too frilly to elicit a strong response. 

The same reasoning backs the advice that you should use Anglo-Saxon words when you’re trying for direct, and Latin words when you’re trying for detached—the former hits straight at the heart, the latter takes a more convoluted route to meaning. (Indeed, for example, hit, straight, heart come from Old English versus convoluted, route that come from Latin.)

Now, to see the principle of dangerous associations in action: Henri Michaux takes two words and makes their relationship explicit in The Danger in Associations of Thoughts1 .

It’s beautiful, a saw, a pit sawyer’s saw, a saw that powerfully, smoothly, calmly moves through a heavy sawlog, cutting it up completely.

A pair of lungs is also beautiful. Very beautiful. Within, without. Within even more, so magnificently useful when you know how to use them, taking them every now and then into the cold air of high altitudes where they thrive and take delight.

You’ve probably guessed how the saw and the lungs combine.

But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? 

The meta-element makes Michaux’s text more than just an excessive (or random) exercise in associative powers. He asks the question why did you start thinking which is precisely the realisation we arrive at after a hypothetical image has possessed us. It’s the admission of helplessness at the hands of our own imagination.

A few lines later, after some magnificent teeth, furrows, sawing and blood, Michaux returns to the meta-element which has taken on a governing reality of its own.

Too late now for “absent-minded” thoughts. Here it is. It reigns over everything and like a crazy person, there it is, cutting into your lost body, now inevitably lost.

Indeed, the quotes around absent-minded indicate that what started as an association of two unrelated words, seemingly harmless because of its imaginative nature, has progressed to an actuality (Here it is) that has taken control (reigns over everything) and is causing harm (cutting etc). Additionally—and this is the truly twisted component—Michaux likens the associative-process-come-true to a crazy person.

Let me say that again: he’s not calling crazy the person having these thoughts, he is calling crazy the freewheeling partnership of the words saw and lungs.

Two weeks ago I ended a post with a line arguing that fear in writing consists of, after all, just words.

Today’s text provides a counterargument: some words in some situations are not just words. Taken allegorically, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts efficiently maps out the progression of psychosomatic illnesses—at least as popularly perceived—over the course of a single page. 

I recommend it as a warning: when words threaten to combine dangerously, seek a diversion. For example, try really hard not to think of white polar bears rolling in the snow with their cubs, and the harder you don’t want to think of them the more likely they are to come unbidden.

That’s calling the white bear problem to the rescue. More on that next time.

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This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.


  1.  Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson 

9 responses

  1. I love the way the sound of some words just sound right for their meanings – your examples, buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling. And my favourite two – liquid and fluid. Words that seem to flow.
    I love the pictures you choose for your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree, I too like the “ui” sound which is also found in the gooey. I think it’s interesting taking these sounds that we usually associate with a particular state or action and seeing how they affect our perception of names (e.g. is Louie more “flowing” than Lucia). Also conversely, where they clash. For example, I agree liquid looks more flowing, but if you talk about a quid, I’m not thinking about the liquidity of the British pound—I’m thinking solid or quid pro quo. But then if you tell me squid, that’s got the squishiness of the “sq” and the “qui” of liquid…

      Glad you like the pics! I treat myself to a few minutes of choosing the best ones from unsplash once I’ve finished a post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My problem is that I only read the first part of “Two glasses of wine and her stilettos became as unwieldy as stilts.” and then I thought of dining out with a ballet dancer I once knew and I couldn’t put a negative onto it. But then, I am reputed to be shallow.

    Liked by 2 people

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